Water & Drought

Gold Rush era mementos emerge at depleted Folsom Lake

The Folsom Lake marina boat docks in El Dorado Hills are completely exposed at Brown’s Ravine due to low water levels Wednesday .
The Folsom Lake marina boat docks in El Dorado Hills are completely exposed at Brown’s Ravine due to low water levels Wednesday . pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Deborah Taylor from Sacramento spent her childhood camping at the Mormon Island area of Folsom Lake with her late father and siblings. On Wednesday, she looked out at the bare, fractured lakebed with tears welling in her eyes.

It looked more like a moonscape than a popular spot for boating and watersports. It was unrecognizable, she said, as she looked back at her 78-year-old mother, who came alongside Taylor to relive memories of her husband and high school sweetheart.

“This is all we have, and when it’s gone, it’s gone and you can’t get it back,” Taylor said.

As of Sept. 9, Folsom Lake held about 188 acre feet of water, down 50 percent from the same time in 2014. Taxed by years of drought, the lake is currently filled to 19 percent of its total capacity, with officials from the federal Bureau of Reclamation foreseeing it may yet drop below the 1977 record-low of 150 acre feet.

Low water levels change more than the lake’s aesthetics. They unveil remnants of a usually inundated Gold Rush-era town known as Mormon Island. Currently, rusted tools and trinkets, a large road bridge and withered building foundations are exposed.

Taylor has brought her grandchildren, ages 5 and 8, to the lake in years past, but she fears there will be nothing for them to come back to soon, both because of the drought and the individuals who scavenge Mormon Island for relics.

“My father used to say that a camper leaves no trace,” Taylor said. “We need to appreciate and respect what we have now.”

Two members of the Mormon Battalion during the Mexican War settled at Mormon Island and profited from gold mining in the area. The town was home to over 2,500 residents at its height in 1853, but its gold supplies dwindled, and the town proved unable to recover from fire that ravaged the area in 1856. By 1940, only four families were left residing in Mormon Island and. In 1955, the hamlet was drowned in the creation of Folsom Lake, a man-made reservoir on the American River.

It’s unfortunate that people wouldn’t want to leave real Gold Rush era artifacts there for everyone to experience

Gregory Cain, West Sacramento

Gregory Cain, a West Sacramento resident who visited the historic site on Tuesday, found dozens of artifacts piled atop tree stumps and rock wall building foundations. An online Meetup group called the Folsom Dry Lake Explorers plans to head out for several walking tours of the Mormon Island ruins, visiting the town’s former cemetery, winery and dairy.

Others come to scour the area with metal detectors looking for finding historical treasure.

“There’s no doubt that people could have removed a lot of stuff in the area over the past years,” said Cain. “It’s unfortunate that people wouldn’t want to leave real Gold Rush era artifacts there for everyone to experience.”

Both federal and state law prohibit removing or disturbing historical artifacts from areas like Mormon Island. Signage surrounding the lake and site serve to remind visitors of such laws, but the area does not appear to be patrolled, according to Cain.

The Bureau of Reclamation has recently faced the same difficulties at New Melones Lake in Tuolumne County, where low reservoir levels have exposed historical ruins and people have taken to plundering relics.

“These are landmarks that have been there for years, decades even, and they have to be left in place,” said bureau spokesman Wilbert Lewis Moore.

Despite the laws, historical artifacts removed from Folsom Lake often do not make it far.

Every time the lake drops significantly, people bring unearthed relics to the Folsom History Museum, said Folsom Historical Society Director Anthony Ikeda Kolar.

“Folsom has a rich historical background and a cooperative community that’s aware of it,” Kolar said. “I would assume that people are contacting the right authorities and obtaining these artifacts legally.”

Brenna Lyles: 916-321-1083, @brennmlyles

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